Soup Countdown #10: Pho at Mai Lee

January is National Soup Month, which makes sense, considering the first month of the year is typically marked with below-freezing temperatures, snow and slush. What's better than a delicious, hot bowl of soup on a chilly day? A delicious, hot bowl of soup that you don't have to make -- that's what. This January Gut Check will revisit some of our favorite hot soups to help guide your belly through this month-long soup celebration.

Soup Countdown #10: Pho at Mai Lee
Stephanie Tolle

When the winter chill is overwhelming, or when you feel that tickle in your throat and pressure in your sinuses, a steaming hot bowl of pho works miracles. The Pho Tai Bo Vien (pho with medium-rare beef and meatballs) at Mai Lee (8396 Musick Memorial Drive, Brentwood; 314-645-2835) makes everything better. The beef-based broth is subtle yet soul-satisfying, with hints of cinnamon, clove and fennel. It sparkles with little bubbles of fat. Thinly sliced beef and dense flavorful Vietnamese meatballs supply a satisfying meaty chew.

Western table manners do not apply to pho-eating. You have to slurp pho noodles -- that's just what you do. Hunch over this shimmering bowl of sultry soup, and go to town on those noodles while the heat warms your face. There is no rush. The noodles Mai Lee uses stay nice and firm for a good long while in the seemingly ever-hot broth. It is acceptable, nay, encouraged to simply pick up the bowl and slurp.

The provided plate of garnishes includes fresh cilantro, basil, sliced jalepéno peppers, bean sprouts and lime wedges, all of which add brightness to the warming soup. For an extra kick to get your blood flowing, add some of the ever-present Sriracha hot sauce or garlic chile sauce. Dip your chopsticks in the little dish of hoisin sauce for a rich sweet contrast. Eating pho is an experience for all senses that benefits from lingering and experimenting.

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